On clothes: Rescued, re-worn, donated, exchanged, and ever on their own journeys around the world.

Like money, garments circulate and are exchanged: among people and around the world.

One way to make them circulate is by resuscitating them, rescuing them from wardrobes and chests of drawers and giving them a new life by re-wearing them. What motivates this tendency that, breaking with the linear concept of modern time, reintroduces the traditional concept of cyclical time: the need to save the beautiful from destruction, eccentricity, love of the retro or déjà vu, lack of imagination, dissatisfaction with the present, a quest for evasion and dreams that betrays a hidden anguish? But clothes are also exchanged and travel through the world: for instance, from East to West. In the 1960s and again in the 1990s, an exotic trend vibrated through the West: the Other was worn on the body. If at first it was an act of rebellion against its society and its consumerist ideals, did it then become a way to signify its haunting ghosts?

Like money, clothes talk.

—Cristina Giorcelli,
professor of American Literature at the University of Rome Three and co-editor of Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being 2


Paula Rabinowitz, professor of English at the University of Minnesota and co-editor of Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being 2

The fabric of female friendship is woven often through the exchange of clothing. One friend borrows a dress, another loans a bracelet, a third needs a clean T-shirt, and on and on.

Women shop together and covet each others’ garments; we also cast them off as gifts or hand-me-downs. Lacking daughters, I give away clothes to friends, students, and now, my daughter-in-law. Before my mother died, we exchanged jeans as she fit into old pairs I no longer could zip up and I acquired hers that swam on her diminished hips. These items themselves rarely matter much.

Dress circa 1921 with a Georgette crepe
and fringed waist.

But sometimes they do. This is the story of one such exchange.

In the early 1970s, when everyone I knew spent long hours perusing Salvation Army and other used-clothing stores for discarded clothes from the 1920s to the 1940s (long, slinky jackets and fringed dresses from the 20s; crepe sheathes from the 30s; platforms and tailored outfits from the 40s), I got a treasure. I had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from California—home to the great used-clothing emporia, especially those in Southern California, where Hollywood studios often sent discarded wardrobe items—with a friend. One day, an old friend of hers (who was among the first women FM radio deejays with an all-night show devoted to recirculating great women jazz and blues singers like Ruth Brown, Etta James, Koko Taylor) showed up. She was from Detroit and needed money. She was an extravagant, flamboyant dresser—Janis Joplin was her idol and thrift shops her clothing haunts. She had a fabulous dress for sale from her suitcase.

It was a hand-embroidered, brown crepe Molyneux.

It was complete with the label from Paris, mid-calf and fitted—straight out of a late 1930s film with Joan Blondell—and it fit me perfectly. I bought it for $25, a lot of money then, as I was a waitress in a coffee shop. I wore it occasionally and kept it hanging in my closet through dozens of moves around the country and the world, but later lost contact with my roommate and her friend and haven’t pulled it out in decades.

Designer Edward Molyneux worked
with a limited palette: black, blues,
grays, and this rich mahogany color.

Last year by chance I opened a Facebook account but never look at it, as I don’t remember all the elaborate steps needed to access it. Still, it’s there. And out of the blue I received a message from this friend, with a shout-out to Etta James after her death in January, so I knew it was her. I responded with the inevitable Could it really be you? and immediately she answered back, not with queries about life or kids or work during the past 40 years, but with a crucial question: “Do you still have the Molyneux dress?”

I did and I do—or so I think*, but that’s not the point—the dress, a mythical object of pure desire and intimate exchange, still a bond.

* Or so I think. Because, when I went searching in my closet for the beloved dress one 90-plus-degree day this summer to photograph it, I could not find it.

And then I remembered: About a decade ago, a sorority was collecting clothing in a large van. Good-quality clothes only, no T-shirts or ratty jeans, and in one of my rare and always regretted purges, I divulged my closet of a slew of padded-shoulder jackets from the 1980s (damn, they’re almost back in style now with Dallas in revival!) and a few choice objects—including the Molyneux, which I figured I’d never wear and might bring a small fortune at the auction for the charity this drive was supporting.

So the dress continues on its journey of exchange. Who knows where?


Paula Rabinowitz and Cristina Giorcelli are co-editors of Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being 2, the second volume in a four-part series charting the social, cultural, and political expression of clothing. This volume analyzes how garments circulate through culture and the economy, signaling and altering identity. Read a post that correlates with the first volume, Accessorizing the Body.

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